Governor Gina Raimondo on Friday joined the Women’s Caucus of the Rhode Island Democratic Party in expressing dismay over how caucus members were treated during a meeting Thursday night.
"This is a problem. It's a problem," Raimondo told RIPR during a Statehouse interview. "The party needs to be a big tent and women and the Women's Caucus need to feel welcomed and respected in the party. That's the future of the party. And so the way this was handled was the women felt, justifiably, disrespected. Patronized, too. And that's a problem."
But Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the RI Democratic Party, said the Women's Caucus left a meeting of their own volition when the party was trying to promote an open and transparent process. He said that's particularly important given how some Bernie Sanders felt the Democratic presidential nomination was wired for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The dispute Thursday night "was about having an open and transparent nominating process and an open and transparent nominating process alone," Olasanoye said.
Raimondo said she offered two members of the Women's Caucus, state Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) and Pawtucket City Councilor Meghan Kallman, the use of her North Main Street campaign office for future caucus meetings.
The governor said the issue of whether Democratic Party staff should have been present during meetings to interview candidates for the first executive board of the Women's Caucus is between the caucus and the party. But she said the way caucus members were treated is "a problem ... if the party is not conducting itself in a way that makes them feel welcomed and respected and trusted.
"And they [the caucus] sent the message -- which is, 'we're not going to take it, we are not going to be disrespected and patronized to," Raimondo said. "And I think everyone should respect women and their place in the party, but we have to win elections. The Democratic Party has to win elections. The future of the Democratic Party has to include a vibrant Women's Caucus, and I hope we realize that."
The office of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello -- who has considerable influence over the Democratic Party appartus -- has not responded to a request for comment.
The clash began when the caucus convened to choose its first executive board.
Caucus members objected when a Democratic Party official wanted to sit in on interviews with candidates for the executive board.
Justine Caldwell, a member of the caucus, said the official proceeded to kick them out of the party’s headquarters.
“It wasn’t implied, it wasn’t hinted at -- it was absolutely, explicitly stated, in a room with 15 people in it,” Caldwell said in a statement.
The caucus wound up relocating to a sports bar to continue its meeting.
“It’s obviously ironic that a group of female Democratic leaders was more welcome at a sports bar than even at our own party’s headquarters,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said the incident shows the Rhode Island Democratic Party has not learned how to treat its female members with respect.
In a statement, party spokeswoman Ann Gooding defended the attempt to keep a Democratic staffer in the meeting.
“The Democratic Party remains steadfast in believing the process should be open, fair and transparent,” Gooding said. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that our party – in all its caucuses – remains that way.”
Gooding said she thinks it was wrong for the nominating committee to forbid another staffer from sitting in during interviews. According to Gooding, one of the caucus’ organizers sent her a note of apology Friday morning.